College scores B+ on sustainability report card

Williams students have one more grade to worry about this week. The Sustainable Endowments Institute released its College Sustainability Report Card for 2009 and granted the College an overall grade of B+, the same score it received last year.

The report, which evaluates the environmental sustainability of the 300 colleges and universities across the U.S. and Canada with the largest endowments, assigns a grade on a scale of A to F for nine different subcategories ranging from “Food and Recycling” to “Investment Priorities.” The Institute based its decisions on both independent research and surveys sent to participating schools.

The highest overall score on the Report Card, received by 15 schools, was an A-. Middlebury and Harvard were among those 15, while Amherst joined the College in the group of 19 schools that received a B+.

According to Stephanie Boyd, director of the Zilkha Center for Environmental Initiatives, the College’s stagnating grade does not reflect a halt in its efforts to promote sustainability on campus. “We’re doing all that we should be doing,” Boyd said. She explained that these assessments need to be read with the understanding that there is a significant lack of agreement within the sustainability field about what issues and initiatives are most important. She and her colleague at the Zilkha Center, environmental analyst Amy Johns, point to this as a reason for several of the College’s dissatisfactory grades.

The College has been focusing its efforts on the issue of energy conservation, recently completing a 26.8-kilowatt photovoltaic system and working on an initiative to install real-time meters to measure the electricity and heat used by various buildings on campus. Boyd expects the meters will help the College community evaluate the success of current environmental initiatives as well as devise more effective energy-saving strategies.
The grade the College received for “Climate Change and Energy,” however, was a B. One of the indicators that hurt Williams’ score was the fact that it has not signed the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment, a pledge to take various specific steps toward climate neutrality. The reasons for this, Boyd explains, involve the size of the College and its existing pledge to reduce emissions to 10 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. Since the College has already set a goal of its own, Boyd and the administration do not think it necessary to sign on to the Presidents’ Climate Commitment.

Williams’ lowest score, a C, came in the area of transportation, largely because of the College’s lack of public means for student transport. The grade frustrates Boyd and Johns, who point out that the College is residential, with almost all of the students living on campus and over half of the professors living in Williamstown. Transportation in particular begs the question, “Do we look at the actions the College is taking or the end results?” Johns said. The Report Card penalized the College for not actively promoting public transportation even though most College students already walk or bike to class.

The College received a score of A in the subcategories “Food and Recycling,” “Investments Priorities,” “Shareholder Engagement” and “Student Involvement,” a category introduced only this year. The Report Card cited the Zilkha Center, which was founded in December of last year, as a key part of this Student Involvement grade. The Center hires student Eco-Reps and interns to work on sustainability projects during the school year and in the summer. Student-led initiatives like “Do It in the Dark” also contributed to the College’s A in this category.

While Boyd and Johns doubt that the Report Card’s findings will impact the College’s policies, they do believe that such assessments serve the important purpose of “bring[ing] a level of awareness” to environmental issues. Boyd said that “probably no school deserves an A,” but that being able to compare different colleges’ progress and sharing ideas is valuable.
She and Johns are currently involved in an effort to develop a different assessment that will not only allow this type of independent comparison, but also help the institutions themselves evaluate and improve their sustainability policies. Through the Zilkha Center, the College is working with the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, along with a number of other schools, to create an assessment that will be meaningful for both external groups and administrators within the institutions. A pilot program has been implemented for this year, but the results will likely not be public until the evaluation has been fully developed.
Boyd and Johns’ participation in the development of the assessment has underscored the difficulty of assigning relative weights to different aspects of sustainability. Deciding what metrics should be included in evaluations “takes a lot of thinking,” Johns said. She and Boyd have also been grappling with issues like how to quantify what schools are not doing. “The greenest building is the building you don’t build,” Johns said, but evaluations often do not reflect that. Boyd also points to the inherent differences between how small and large or wealthy and poor schools approach sustainability policy as a source of difficulty. “Which is greener, a wealthy school building green buildings or a poorer school without emission-producing infrastructure?” Boyd asked.